What a blessing to be with you this morning! I bring greetings from Massachusetts, where I serve as “Missioner for Creation Care” for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and for the United Church of Christ. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to love and protect the Earth that God entrusted to our care. Imagine my pleasure when several weeks ago I received an invitation from your rector to preach at St. James. He told me about the steps you’ve been taking to care for God’s Creation. I hear that you’re working to improve your building’s energy efficiency and moving toward installing solar panels; that you hosted a public forum on wind power; and that last month your Vestry decided – unanimously! – to divest from fossil fuels, making St. James the first congregation in this diocese to divest. I am deeply thankful that you are setting out on a path to live more lightly on the Earth and following Jesus on the Way of Love.
Faith communities have a special role to play in healing what one of our Eucharistic prayers calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.” The world needs our witness more than ever. Scientists are telling us with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Great populations of creatures – even entire species – have vanished. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, the vast and growing consumption “of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
You’ve probably heard that we are in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.”
Related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. The New York Times recently reported that “the five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” New studies show that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Sea ice is melting. Land ice is melting. Tundra is thawing. Extreme storms are growing more intense. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming.
I think it’s fair to say that in these precarious times, many of us, for good reason, may be feeling stressed-out, or numb, or, frankly, scared. This is a good time to sink our roots deep into the love of God, to remember how loved we are, how cherished we are in God’s sight, how nourished we are by a love that will never let us go and that will give us strength for the journey ahead. So thank God for St. James! Thank God for every community, every congregation, every house of worship that draws people together to pray, to listen to the wisdom of Scripture, to draw close to Jesus, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit!
Today’s readings give us a beautiful image for spiritual resilience and leadership. In Psalm 1 we read that those who trust in God are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). Imagine being such a tree! Your roots go deep into the love of God, which runs like a river beside you. No matter what is happening in the world around you, even if what’s going on is dangerous or chaotic, even in times of storm or drought, your roots reach deep into the ground and you stand beside a divine river that is endlessly flowing. Like trees planted beside a stream of living water (John 7:37-38), we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). We know that God is with us. We feel God’s power and we feel God’s strength. Drawing from those deep roots we rise up like trees, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. We drink deep of abundance, absorb it into every cell of our bodies, and then share that abundance with the world – freely, generously, without holding back, because there is plenty more where that came from!
The same image of spiritual resilience and vitality plays out in today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7-8):
7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
I find this tree imagery so compelling that it affected the title of a book I’m co-editing that will be published (by Rowman & Littlefield) this fall, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. The manuscript is due in 10 days – so, in more ways than one, the heat is on. With my co-editor, Leah Schade, we’ve put together a collection of essays by 21 climate activists from a range of faith traditions, asking each of them to write about what gives them the energy, motivation, and courage to keep pushing for a more just and healthy future, when the odds of success are so slim and the forces arrayed against us are so great. In one way or another, each of these dedicated activists has sunk their taproot into something enduring that grounds them, like trees extending their roots into deep soil.
I’m not a biologist, but I’m learning that trees are more intelligent than we thought. Books like The Hidden Life of Trees tell us that the root systems of trees communicate with each other, and that trees develop social networks and share resources. A lot of underground life is going on beneath our feet! And that’s true for us, too: when we sink our own roots deep into the love of God, we, too, discover that everyone and everything is connected. On the surface, we may see only our differences, what divides us from each other, but from below, on the level of roots, we discover what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community: here, where God’s love is always being poured into our hearts, we realize that everyone, and the whole Creation, is loved and that we belong together. Beneath all our differences of race, class, gender, and political party, we belong to one living, sacred whole.
Every time we tap into the deep-down truth of our essential belovedness, we discover fresh energy for life. And so – up we rise, like a mighty tree, offering our gifts to each other and to the world: our fruits and leaves; a kind word, a healing gesture, our resolve to take part in the healing of the world.
When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can do what this church did – divest from fossil fuels – and if we’re college graduates, we can urge our alma mater to divest, as well.
I’m thrilled to hear that this congregation is invited to take part in a new initiative that The Episcopal Church is launching on Ash Wednesday: Sustain Island Home. The Diocese of Western Massachusetts will also launch Sustain Island Home, starting in Lent. Sustain Island Home1 will help us learn how to reduce our carbon emissions, and it provides a “carbon tracker” that will mark our progress as we make better choices around energy. Learning how to live a carbon-neutral life – learning how to ditch fossil fuels and turn toward energy efficiency, energy conservation, and clean renewable energy – is one of the most powerful and prayerful ways we can align ourselves with the love of God and neighbor.
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. As the IPCC has made clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we need to use our voices and our votes, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. This will not be easy. We will have to root ourselves and plant ourselves in the love and justice of God.
I can’t help thinking of the African-American spiritual that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, a protest song and a union song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Even now, I hear Pete Seeger singing, “We shall not, we shall not be moved; we shall not, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” He goes on: “Young and old together, we shall not be moved… women and men together, we shall not be moved… city and country together, we shall not be moved… black and white together, we shall not be moved… just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”
Rooted in love and rising up in action, Christians and other people of faith will not be moved. We intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are good stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all its communities. So some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan organization that pushes for a price on carbon; some of us join our local chapter of 350.org and become part of the global climate movement; those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. There is so much that we can do – so many ways to bear fruit!
As we prepare to receive Communion together, to receive the body and blood of Christ and to take in His presence and strength, I invite you to ask yourself: How is God calling you to rise up and take part in the healing of the world?
SustainIslandHome.org was piloted by the Episcopal Diocese of California. It will be available to the entire Episcopal Church, starting on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. For more information about SustainIslandHome, visit the “Advocacy for Climate Solutions” page of the Diocese of California: diocal.org/climate.
Sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
First Parish in Lincoln, Massachusetts
October 14, 2018
Ten years to avert climate catastrophe? What do we do now?
“Spiritual beliefs are not something alien from Earth, but rise out of its very soil. Perhaps our first gestures of humility and gratitude were extended to Earth through prayer, the recognition that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves. Call it God. Call it Wind. Call it a thousand different names. Corn pollen sprinkled over the nose of a deer. Incense sprinkled from swaying balls held by a priest. Arms folded, head bowed. The fullness we feel after prayer is the acknowledgment that we are not alone in our struggles and sufferings. We can engage in dialogue with the Sacred, with God and each other. A suffering that cannot be shared is a suffering that cannot be endured.”
–Terry Tempest Williams, Leap
29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31 so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
— Gospel of Matthew 15:29-31
Wouldn’t you know – at the same time that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its report, a monster storm was forming off the Gulf Coast. It quickly grew to a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, careened into the Florida Panhandle and then roared across the Carolinas, leaving devastation in its wake. Our hearts go out to the people who lost their lives, homes, and livelihoods to Hurricane Michael, which was supercharged by warming seas, exactly the kind of extreme weather event that is linked to climate change.
I know we have a lot on our mind these days. In these turbulent times, many concerns are pressing for our attention. But tackling climate change must be front and center if we are going to leave our children and grandchildren a habitable world. Can we do it? Just as important: will we do it? Given the enormity of the task, I know it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed, easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. I assume that strictly speaking all of us in this room are not climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes.
That is why I give thanks that I’m here with you this morning. When we face the stark reality of climate change and grasp that we have perhaps ten years in which to avoid irreversibly dismantling the life systems of the planet, we need to find each other – we need to gather with other people of faith and good will, to see each other’s faces, look into each other’s eyes, and feel each other’s hands in ours. And we need to pray. Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to pray, to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. My friends, we need help. We need guidance. We need the love and power of God.
And so we pray, recognizing, as Terry Tempest Williams says in our first reading, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” Our prayer can take many forms, as Terry also acknowledges. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves?
Over the past few weeks a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.
Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart.
I imagine that Jesus prayed like that, both expressively and in silence, and more often than not outdoors. That’s where we usually find him in the Gospel stories – outdoors in the wilderness, on a mountain, beside the sea, or walking mile upon mile down dusty roads. Jesus was immersed in the natural world and he used images of nature in his parables and teachings: weeds and wheat; seeds and rocks; lilies, sheep, and sparrows. No doubt he knew from his prayer, as we know from ours, that when we pray in the company of the living world, when we pray “with the Sacred, with God and each other,” we receive strength from beyond ourselves.
That’s why I chose the second reading: as Matthew’s Gospel tells it, Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and then goes up the mountain. I wonder if his being with the sea and with the mountain, and his prayerful walking in fresh air, were part of his communion with the divine. For it is from out of his immersion in the natural world that Jesus begins to carry out actions that bring healing and wholeness. His prayer is transformed into action; his secret communion with the God of love spills over into acts of love, and through his presence, words, and touch, great crowds of people are healed.
Does something like that happen when we, too, pray with and for the natural world? Despite its wounds, the living world still conveys the mystery of the living God. Like Jesus, when we experience the divine presence, we receive fresh energy to renew the face of the Earth, to become healers and justice-seekers. We cast our lot with people of faith and spirit who have been awakened – as we have been awakened – by a fierce longing to join the dance of life. We rise up from prayer to act, and we pray as we act.
What does it look like when we join God’s dance of life? We start by making personal changes. Maybe we cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch to clean sources of energy. (After today’s service, you have an opportunity to switch to wind power as the source of your home’s electricity.) Maybe we fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. And we also push for the larger, systemic changes that must be carried out by businesses, politicians and non-profits. Maybe we lobby for policies that support renewable energy, carbon pricing, and clean green jobs. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts that is fighting for a rapid and just transition to 100% renewable energy. 350Mass has a local node that includes people right here in the town of Lincoln. What else can we do? We can vote for candidates with strong climate policies, and maybe send some money to climate champions running for office in other states. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. Some of us may feel called to join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and put our bodies on the line.
In whatever ways we step out to heal God’s creation and to join the dance of life, we will take risks we never imagined we would take. We will connect with people we never imagined we would meet. And we will make more of a difference than we will ever know. Will we succeed in creating a more just and gentle relationship between humanity and the rest of Creation? Will we succeed in averting climate disaster? I don’t know. But I do know this: I intend to bear witness to the power of a living God until the day I die, and I know that you do, too.
Thank you for your courage and your faithfulness. I look forward to hearing what next steps this community will take.
Over the years, science and religion have had a complicated and sometimes hostile relationship. As our convener Professor Mark Silk observed, religion and science have distinct approaches to reality. Although scientists sometimes serve as advisers and consultants to religious leaders, and although scientists may turn to religion for inspiration, to form a coalition of religious leaders and scientists “would be something new under the sun.”
Such a partnership has enormous potential in this perilous time. In fact, such a partnership may be not just desirable, but even essential. Given the massive disruption of our global climate that is now underway, we need to hear from scientists, who have made it abundantly clear that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead in a very short time to climate catastrophe. And we also need to hear from spiritual and religious leaders, who can give us the inspiration, motivation, and moral courage to change course and to create a more just and life-sustaining society.
Professor Silk put it like this: “If a coalition of scientists and faith leaders can’t communicate what is necessary to do, no one can. If no one can communicate what is necessary, no one can do what is necessary.”
Professor Robert DeConto of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave a brief, stark presentation of his research on the Antarctica ice sheet, noting that business as usual would result in a one meter global rise in sea levels by 2100 that would affect 152 million people worldwide – just from the melting of Antarctica’s ice. Lest those numbers sound abstract, he brought his message home with a slide depicting how much of Boston would be underwater.
I was invited to speak about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and my remarks are posted below. Some of the other faith-based speakers included the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church, who, in a talk entitled “The Cry of the Poor,” spoke eloquently about climate justice, urging us to grapple with the contradiction that the people most harmed by climate change are not the people who make policy decisions.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, whose new book Climate Church, Climate World is about to be released, pressed the religious leaders in the room to recognize that witnessing for God’s Creation is the vocation of the church, the synagogue, the mosque and the temple. “What if taking action on climate were to become as defining a quality of what it means to be religious, as prayer? What if religious leaders in Massachusetts gave at least as much attention to collective salvation as they currently give to personal salvation? What if every person of faith understood that ‘To be a person of faith, I have to speak up for Creation?’”
Professor Moomaw suggested: What if this second notice about the ways that human activity is unraveling the web of life were handed out in every congregation and cited in the newsletters of every faith community?
The Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice at Arlington Street Church, Boston, stood up to say, “This is a historic gathering. If it isn’t a historic gathering, we will have failed.” He urged us to take to heart Pope Francis’ admonition in Laudato Si that we must become politically engaged and strategic. To quote the Pope’s encyclical: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.” (179).
Rev. Fred went on to say, “My prayer and my entreaty to the Archdiocese is to bring the same passion and priority to climate justice as to any pro-life effort heretofore — because there is nothing more pro-life than protecting and preserving Creation, the environment on which all human life depends.” If we don’t do this, he added, the cost would be enormous in fire, famine, flood, and refugees.
Looking back on these intensive two days of discussion and our plans for next steps, I live in hope that something new is indeed being born right here in Massachusetts as people of science and people of faith come together to unite head and heart and to work together to protect our common home.
My thoughts are expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who heard God saying,
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:16)
Here is my presentation to the gathering of scientists and faith leaders at the Archdiocese of Boston on February 8, 2018
The Current State of Religious Climate Action in Massachusetts
I am blessed to be here. Thank you, Cardinal O’Malley, for convening us. To you and to everyone here I bring greetings from Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, whom I am representing.
I’ve been asked to speak briefly about the current state of religious climate action in Massachusetts, and I’ll start with a word about myself. I was ordained in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson testified to the US Senate that scientists were increasingly concerned about the effects of burning fossil fuel and what at that point they were calling “the greenhouse effect.” Concern about climate change was placed on my heart at the very beginning of my ordained ministry, at its root, and in the years since then, I have tried to understand our spiritual and moral responsibility as human beings – as religious leaders – in a time of such great peril.
Just from looking around, I can say that the interfaith climate justice movement in Mass. is alive and well. With people in this room (and beyond) I’ve preached about climate change and led workshops for clergy on how to preach about climate. With people in this room I’ve led retreats and written pastoral letters and ecumenical statements. With people in this room I’ve pushed for divestment from fossil fuels, lobbied for carbon pricing, marched for climate justice, held prayer vigils, and been arrested for acts of non-violent civil disobedience to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
I am heartened by what I see as an upsurge in awareness and concern here in the Commonwealth among people of faith and good will, and a growing desire to connect the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. I am thrilled that The Poor People’s Campaign is taking shape and linking justice of every kind – social, racial, economic and ecological. Meanwhile, I want you to know that a group of people of many faiths is organizing a climate witness that will take place in Boston on Monday in Holy Week, March 26, a few days before Passover. We’re calling it Exodus from Fossil Fuel. We will hold an interfaith ceremony at the State House, appeal to the Governor to stop the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and then march in procession to the Back Bay, where a new pipeline project is slated to power luxury high-rises with fracked gas. There we plan to witness to our vision of a beloved community, and to our intention to build a just and livable future for our planet and all its inhabitants. I expect that young people will join us, because I know they are looking for moral leadership on climate. I invite you to join us, too.
The movement is growing, but what we’re missing is an effective, strategic, and well-organized network that mobilizes faith communities from top to bottom, rouses the general public, and becomes an unstoppable force on the political scene. Some of us recently tried and failed to create such a network. Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (or MAICCA, for short) came into being in 2015, inspired by the release of Laudato Si. It had a good two-year run. MAICCA did many wonderful things, such as making it easy for congregations to become politically engaged, organizing legislative action days at the State House, setting up waves of meetings with local legislators, and taking a leadership role in the huge climate march and rally that was held in Boston in December 2015. But MAICCA ran into trouble – for one thing, we never worked out our organization or a sustainable strategy.
The time is ripe for a new initiative.
I hope for three things:
1) I hope that top leaders of faith communities will make it crystal clear that addressing the climate crisis is central to our moral and spiritual concern. It’s not one of 26 different causes that we care about, but a cause that affects everything we cherish. I hope that top faith leaders will convey to their congregations that if you care about the poor, you care about climate; if you care about immigration and refugees, you care about climate; if you care about public health, you care about climate; if you care about human rights, you care about climate; if you care about loving God and your neighbor, you care about climate. The climate is not an issue for a special interest group. If you like to breathe, if you like to eat, if you’d like to leave your children a world they can live in, you care about climate.
2) I hope that faith communities will get organized within our selves and across traditions so that we become scientifically informed, spiritually grounded, and politically effective, enabling us to speak with one voice about the sacredness of God’s Creation and the moral imperative to protect it.
3) I hope that faith communities will draw from our deep spiritual wisdom as we confront the climate crisis. We know that the massive West Antarctica ice shelves are collapsing and sliding into the sea in a process that some scientists call “unstoppable.” Yet we also know that the love of God is unstoppable. With that love in our hearts and in our midst, who knows what we will be able to accomplish?
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his terrific TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world.
Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
• Storytelling The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
• Rituals Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
• Sermons It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to? Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.
I am blessed to worship with you this morning. Thank you, Cricket, for inviting me back to preach. The last time I was here, I served the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as your Missioner for Creation Care, but since then my job has expanded: now I also serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. As far as I know, I’m the only person who holds the same job in both the Episcopal and UCC Churches. To me, this joint position, is an emblem of good things to come. As we awaken to the climate crisis, Christians of every denomination – in fact, people of every faith – have a precious opportunity – even in the midst of our wonderful and colorful diversity – to pull together and to speak with one voice about the urgent need to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
Today’s Gospel text gives us a way to reflect on our call to protect and heal “this fragile Earth, our island home.” In a story from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story – no more than nine sentences – so let’s pause to visualize the scene. The pool, called Beth-zatha, is located near one of the gates into Jerusalem. Years ago archaeologists actually located and excavated the pool. Apparently it was quite large and had four sides. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed – came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had.
That’s the scene. Here’s the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying near the pool on his mat. The story doesn’t say how long he has been waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” (John 5:6).
What do you imagine this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he feels helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but out of reach. What can heal him is way over there, separated from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move toward it. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and he is utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I would guess anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair – all those painful, negative feelings that get stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone.
Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, too. When I imagine my way into this story and hear it in the context of climate change, all kinds of connections start playing in my mind. I start thinking about the ways the world’s web of life needs healing – about the alarming levels of carbon dioxide now pouring into the global atmosphere as coal, gas, and oil continue to be burned, about the oceans heating up and becoming more acidic, about the rising seas that could flood, disrupt, and even take down our country’s coastal cities within the lifetime of our children. I think about the new report saying that continued burning of fossil fuels could cause great swaths of the Pacific Ocean to suffocate from lack of oxygen in only 15 years. I think about the 93% of coral reefs that just bleached in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.”
When we hear news like this about our ailing planet, it’s easy to stop listening. It’s too much to take in, so we shut down. We may feel paralyzed by anxiety or paralyzed by grief. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we may feel immobilized and overwhelmed. How can this dire news be true, and how can we possibly respond? Where can we turn for help and healing when our planet is on track to catapult into climate chaos caused by an ever-expanding economic system that runs on fossil fuels? People the world over can become so gripped by fear, anger, and despair that they feel unable to imagine, much less create, a better future, so they just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we can fall under a spell and make what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
So please turn with me again to our Gospel story. Jesus comes upon this scene of the blind, lame, and paralyzed beside the pool, and, the story tells us, “When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6). That single sentence says a lot. The first step in this miracle of healing is that Jesus saw the man and knew him. John’s Gospel underscores again and again that when Jesus sees us and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves to Jesus or to our Creator God in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity). In prayer, we turn toward the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel.
That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus sees and knows. The second step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” That is a surprising question. We might have expected Jesus to take one look at the situation, pick up the man without a word, carry him straight to the pool of healing water, and slide him in. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is hungry, you offer food to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer drink. Why mess around asking questions?
But Jesus’ question reveals something important. The God we meet in Jesus does not force or push, even when it comes to healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom and gives us space in which to choose. It seems that in order for real healing to take place and new life to spring forth, God’s desire to heal us must meet our own desire to be healed. Do you want to be made well? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man paralyzed beside the pool to explore his desires and to clarify what he truly wants.
Regarding the climate crisis, do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Part of me prefers to stay blind, to close my eyes, duck my head, and turn my attention to more manageable things. Part of me prefers to come up with lame solutions: OK, I’ll change the light bulbs, but that’s it, I’ve done my part. Part of me feels paralyzed: I’m no expert; I’m too small to make a difference; surely someone else will take charge and figure this out.
How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus? “‘Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:7). Jesus’ response is powerful and short: “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:8-9).
What just happened? How did the healing miracle take place? I can’t explain it. But as I imagine it, as Jesus gazed on the man with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved him through and through, and when Jesus asked him the probing question, “Do you want to be made well?,” in a flash of insight the man could admit his own halfheartedness and mixed motives and the ways he’d been holding back. I imagine that he felt his deep-down desire to be whole and free, his longing to love and be loved, his longing to draw close to God and to serve God “with gladness and singleness of heart.”
So I imagine him claiming his deepest desire and turning to Jesus to say, “Yes, I want be fully alive. I want to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding anything back. I want God’s healing power to flow through me, so that I heal others and so that I, too, am healed.” The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening non-verbally by glance and gesture, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I want to be made well.”
“Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.”
And he did.
And so can we.
Amazing things happen when we join our deep desire for healing with God’s deep desire to heal. When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see people shaking off their paralysis, reaching deep into their souls, and accessing their deep, God-given desire to love and serve life. I see people standing up to join the struggle to maintain a habitable planet and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, as people refuse to settle for a killing status quo and declare that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled boldly and without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a growing movement that is pushing for a new social order. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has a node right here in the Berkshires. I’ve left a clipboard at the back of the church, and if you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting, you’ll connect with a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together people of different religious traditions to advocate on Beacon Hill for legislation that supports climate justice. I hope you’ll sign up for MAICCA’s newsletter, too, for we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically underserved. As climate activist Bill McKibben points out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care.
One last word about our Gospel story: notice that the man didn’t need to be immersed in the pool of Beth-zatha in order to be healed. In Jesus’ presence, the man discovered that the healing spring was not outside him – it was inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus gives us water that becomes in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already bubbling up; and Jesus will nourish us with his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the strength of that bread and wine and through the power of the Spirit, we can be healed from paralysis and become healers and justice-makers in a world that is crying out for our care.
1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 206-207.
A presentation to clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts that was given on Parish Leadership Day, March 5, 2016. A handout of suggested action steps is available for download here.
Friends, I’d like to take a page from writer Anne Lamott, who wrote a book a few years ago called Help, Thanks, Wow. She calls these our three most basic prayers, and they make a good framework for these remarks about caring for God’s creation, though I’m going to shuffle the deck a bit and take them in this order: Thanks, Wow, and Help.
“Thanks” comes first.
Thank you to every congregation that is exploring how to live more lightly and sustainably on the Earth.
Thank you to you churches that have joined Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light and gotten an energy audit, maybe even looked into solar panels. I look forward to seeing which church in our diocese will be the first to go solar.
Thank you to you folks who have switched your homes to clean renewable energy from local sources – a step that is easy and inexpensive to take, thanks to an outfit called Mass Energy.
Thank you to everyone who is reining in your own consumption of fossil fuels by walking more and driving less, by turning out lights and turning down the heat.
Thank you to all who are “fasting” from wasteful over-consumption and from actions that pollute.
Thank you to everyone who is looking for ways large and small to “go green,” so that in our individual lives and in our communities we truly bear witness to the God who loves every inch of Creation and who entrusted the Earth to our care.
A special thank you to you clergy who are preaching about the climate crisis. I know that some fine preaching is going on, for some of you have sent me copies of your sermons. I also want to thank you lay leaders who encourage your clergy to preach about climate and who assure them of your support. Because it’s not easy to preach about climate. All kinds of voices tell us that the topic is too controversial, too political, and, besides, who are we to speak about climate – we’re not experts on the subject, we’re not scientists.
So thank you to everyone who sees through that fear and who understands that preaching and teaching and acting boldly on climate is not a political issue – we don’t care about the climate crisis because we’re Democrats or Republicans or members of any particular party.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re human beings, because we want to pass on to our children a habitable and healthy world, a world with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.
We care about the climate crisis because we refuse to wipe out life as it has evolved on this planet and because we know the situation is grave – record heat, record levels of atmospheric CO2, record melting in the Arctic, a precious web of life on the brink of – or already – unraveling.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re Christian – because God’s love is being poured into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit and because we have chosen to follow Jesus’ way of love, justice, and truth. So thank you to all you good folks who in so many ways are expressing God’s love for our precious blue planet and for all its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.
That was Thanks. Here comes Wow. Wow is my response to what happened last year as a surge of religious energy rose up all over the world to safeguard life. How many of you have read or heard of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home? Released last June, it was greeted with admiration by religious leaders around the world and elicited statements on climate action by Anglicans and Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Never before have so many faith groups spoken out so strongly and so unequivocally about our moral responsibility to the poor, who bear the brunt of a changing climate, and about our spiritual responsibility to honor the sacredness of “this planet Earth, our island home.”
By the end of last year, faith groups of all kinds – including our own diocese and the Episcopal Church, at last summer’s General Convention – helped build the fossil fuel divestment movement to reach a combined total of $3.4 trillion in assets committed to divestment. Wow. And faith groups helped generate the momentum that brought us to the landmark climate agreement in Paris last December, when 196 countries came together through the U.N. and pledged to change the course of the global economy and to cap global temperature increases at 2º or ideally 1.5º degrees Celsius.
To all of this, I say: Wow. The wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing.
Here comes my last word to you: Help. I need your help. The Earth needs your help. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We simply cannot burn all that oil, coal and gas. We must transition quickly to clean sources of energy like wind and sunshine. This is a struggle, and we need your help.
I am grateful for your help, and glad to offer you mine: all are welcome to sign up for blog posts at my Website, RevivingCreation.org, and I’d be glad to come to your parish to preach or teach or lead a retreat about caring for God’s creation.
So to God we say:
Thank you. Thank you for your marvelous Creation and for giving us ears to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Gracious God, we say “Wow” when we see your awesome power transforming people’s lives and inspiring us to stand up for life.
And please help us, God – help us to stay grounded in your purpose for us and to become the people you created us to be, people who are a blessing to the Earth.
All this we pray in the presence and power of Christ Jesus, whose way we follow and whose guidance we trust. Amen.
I am blessed to be with you this morning. My husband and I now come to Grace-St. Paul’s whenever we visit Tucson, and I am grateful to be with you again. This is a special place: I feel the Holy Spirit here. Thank you, Steve, for inviting me back to this pulpit.
To say just a word about myself: after 25 years of parish ministry, I now serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. My dream is to help create a wave of religious activism to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care. So I travel around, preaching and teaching and leading retreats about God’s love for this precious planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human, and the need to take action to express our faith. My particular concern is the climate crisis, so you can probably imagine my delight when I learned a few weeks ago that the couple who funded the first two years of my ministry raised the money by selling off their oil stocks. This is happy news to someone who believes, as I do, that divesting from fossil fuels is an expression of our moral values and will help propel a shift to clean energy.
So here we are in the second Sunday in Lent, a season for renewing our lives in response to the love of God. Thanks to the passage from Genesis, today we have Abram standing at our side, an old man who, along with his wife, was landless, childless, without an heir. The door to his future was completely closed, shut tight, locked, and throw away the key. Nothing good lay ahead. Then God spoke to Abram in a vision and made a promise, the kind of promise that God made to a whole line of prophets, one after another: the door to the future was open. Through the grace of God, Abram’s life would bear fruit; he would bring forth life; he would convey blessings that would reach far into the future, blessings as countless as the stars. And Abram responded with faith. He trusted in God’s promise. He stepped out into an unknown and open future, trusting that God would guide him and that God would make him a vehicle or channel for new life.
Today is a good day to stand with our faithful brother Abram and to reaffirm our trust in God’s promise that even when the future looks bleak or chaotic, even when we see no way forward, God is with us. God will open a path where there was no path, provide a way where there was no way, and pour divine hope into our hearts when our own hope is gone.
Heaven knows there are reasons to fear for the future. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. So far that extra CO2 has forced the average global temperature to rise about one degree. That may not sound like much, but what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening so fast. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. We’re on the edge, or in the midst, of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before.
We know that the situation is urgent. We know we have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children. The World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – recently warned that unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. Just imagine for a moment the human suffering and social upheaval that this would engender worldwide.
We know we can do better than that. And as people of faith we refuse to stand idly by and to let business as usual destroy human communities and destroy life as it has evolved on the planet. As Pope Francis so beautifully explained in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si – in a message that was picked up and amplified by Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, and many other religious voices the world over – we bear a moral and spiritual responsibility to respond boldly to the climate crisis.
Lent invites us to come back into balance, to align our lives with our deepest intention, and to make the changes we need to make in order for God’s love to be manifest more fully in our lives. Today, in the presence and power of God, and with Abram at our side, we dare to ask some big questions: Through the grace of God, how can my life bring forth new life? How can I contribute to a better future? How can I live so that my life becomes a blessing to those who come after me? As Ella Fitzgerald once put it, “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.”
You know, there are many ways to be healers in the world, many ways to help our neighbors. But regarding climate change, here come three suggestions.
One: sign up online for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. During Lent, we seek to restore the limits that give life. Let’s you and I learn how to fast from carbon. Let’s you and I learn together how to make choices that cut back dramatically on our use of fossil fuels. This is an honorable, and I would argue, a necessary, Lenten practice. When you sign up for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, you receive a daily email with inspirational reflection and a specific action step to reduce your personal consumption of dirty energy. Right now the fast is being carried out by thousands of Christians who care for God’s Creation.
Two: write a postcard to your members of Congress. After the service, stop at the table for Citizens Climate Lobby and pick up some postcards. You might think that writing a letter or postcard to your member of Congress is a waste of time, but it’s not: your representatives probably have no idea that you care about climate change and that you’re tracking what they’re doing. And Citizens Climate Lobby is pushing for a way to price carbon that will get us off fossil fuels, create new jobs, and accelerate a transition to a new economy based on clean, renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind. Last summer I joined scores of other faith leaders to lobby on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, D.C. We didn’t push for carbon pricing because we were Democrats, or because we were Republicans, or because we were socialists or members of the Green Party. It wasn’t politics that propelled us to support carbon pricing. It was faith: faith in a God who utterly loves us and all Creation, faith in a God who envisions a healthy, just, and sustainable society, faith in a God who wants our lives to be a blessing to the vulnerable poor and to those who come after us.
Three: go to the Website 350.org, sign up to receive emails, and build the global climate movement. 350.org is the grassroots non-profit that is helping to create a wave of global resistance to keep coal, gas, and oil in the ground, where they belong. This coming May, actions will be held in places all over the world to “shut down the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects and support the most ambitious climate solutions.” Already the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground is gaining momentum. People are blockading oil trains and protesting the construction of new pipelines; thousands of so-called “kayaktivists” took to the water in Seattle to block an oil-drilling rig; and two men in a lobster boat near Cape Cod disrupted the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal. Just this week, beloved writer Terry Tempest Williams took part in an auction in Salt Lake City that was selling off leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands. As a climate protester, she bought up land rights on a parcel near Arches National Park in Utah in an effort to prevent any drilling. Later she commented, “It has deeply shaken my core as an American citizen to watch these beautiful, powerful public lands that are all of ours, and our inheritance, being sold for $2 an acre, $3 an acre… I’m both heartsick and heartbroken and outraged.”
Yes, it can be heartbreaking to take part in the struggle to stabilize the climate and to heal our relationship with the Earth. But the pain we feel is an expression of love, and love is what sustains us, and guides us, and will see us through. So I invite you to take up my three suggestions: to join the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast; to sign postcards to your legislators on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby; and to join 350.org and the global climate movement.
As people of faith, we’re here for the long haul. We’re not going away. We’re going to keep fighting for a future that runs on clean energy like sun and wind. We’re going to keep fighting for a society and an economy that leave no one out. As Pope Francis reminded us, the cry of the Earth is intimately connected with the cry of the poor. We hear that cry. We share that cry. And we intend to answer it, by divestment and direct action, by voting and lobbying, by making personal changes in our lifestyle and, perhaps, by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience.
A new world is on the horizon, and we hope to act like midwives, helping that new world to be born. We hope to act like Abram, trusting in God’s promise of new life. And we hope to act like Jesus, who when Herod threatened to kill him, refused to be intimidated or deterred. Despite all the forces arrayed against him, Jesus continued to heal and to set free. He refused to be stopped. “Today,” he said, “tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” (Luke 31:33 ).
And so it is for us. We, too, must be on our way — on Jesus’s way — today, tomorrow, and the next day. Who knows what God in Christ will be able to do through us, now and in the days ahead?
On the eve of the U.N. climate talks in Paris, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide took to the streets to join the Global Climate March. Here in western Massachusetts, 200 people gathered in Amherst and an even larger group assembled nearby in Northampton, all of us calling for decisive international action to keep 80% of current fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
I was the opening speaker at the November 29 rally on the Amherst Common. The crowd included young and old, families, college students and retirees, an 8-foot tall Polar Bear puppet and a little boy in a brown bear suit. We shivered in the cold night air, but our energy was high and our resolve was strong.
A much bigger, regional rally is planned for the day after the conclusion of the U.N. talks. Please join me on the Boston Common on Saturday December 12, 1:00-3:00 p.m. for a Jobs, Justice, and Climate Rally that will bring together a wide range of interests – labor, immigrant rights, faith, racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice groups – as we build an unstoppable grassroots movement to stabilize the climate and create a more just and sustainable society.
Below is what I said last night at the Amherst rally.
I am filled with gratitude as I look into your faces. We stand together tonight in the center of town, under the stars, to express our longing for a safe, just, and sustainable future. All eyes are on Paris tonight. West of here, across the river, another group has assembled in Northampton. South of here, down the road, other people gathered this afternoon in Springfield. East of here, across the state, a group is gathering in Boston. Around the world, in every direction, from Beirut to Barcelona, from Ottawa to Melbourne, thousands of events are in progress, as people from every walk of life turn their hearts and hopes to the U.N. climate negotiations that begin tomorrow in Paris.
We know that the situation is urgent. We have only a short amount of time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children. To cite just one example of where we’re headed if we don’t change course, a few weeks ago the World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – warned that unless we rein in greenhouse gas emissions quickly, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – within the next 15 years. Just think about the human suffering and social upheaval that this would engender worldwide.
We know we can do better than that. And we refuse to stand idly by and to let business as usual continue to destroy human communities and unravel the web of life.
So tonight we join with people around the world to pray for a climate deal in Paris that is ambitious, one that finally gets the world on track to stabilize and lower its carbon emissions.
We also hope for a deal that is fair, one that protects the most vulnerable and low-income populations from the most devastating effects of climate change.
But you know what? This is not just about Paris and it’s not just about tonight. The agreement that comes out of Paris is not going to be enough, by itself, to keep the world below a 2 degree centigrade rise in temperature above preindustrial levels, which we need in order to avert catastrophe.
That’s where you and I come in. Whatever happens in Paris, we’re here for the long haul. We’re not going away. We’re going to keep fighting for a future that runs on clean energy like sun and wind. We’re going to keep fighting for a society and an economy that leave no one out. We’re going to keep building political will and moral pressure until we get this right. As Pope Francis reminded us in his encyclical, the cry of the Earth is intimately connected with the cry of the poor. We hear that cry. We share that cry. And we intend to answer it, by divestment and direct action, by voting and lobbying, by making personal changes in our lifestyle and, perhaps, by engaging in civil disobedience.
A new world is on the horizon, a world that is safe, just and sustainable. We intend to act like midwives, helping that new world to be born. We pray tonight for the climate talks, but those talks are just the beginning. Those talks are just the start.
“You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you, Thomas, for inviting me. I serve the other diocese in Massachusetts as the Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our Christian call to protect the Earth. This morning I must begin with a word about the violence in Paris and in Beirut. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by these acts of terrorism, to the people who were wounded and to the innocents who died, to the families who mourn, to the first responders, and to everyone who is playing some part in weaving these two rattled, frightened, assaulted cities back together into a place of security and peace.
These tragic events shock us. They move us to anger, fear, and grief, for we feel a visceral connection with our French brothers and sisters across the Atlantic, with our Lebanese brothers and sisters across the Mediterranean, and with people everywhere who are subject to acts of violence and terror. We share their human vulnerability. We, too, are mortal. Like it or not, we too live in a world of danger, violence, and uncertainty.
Jesus also lived in such a world, and every year, in late November, as the cycle of the church year draws to a close and we start to head into Advent, we hear Scripture readings that turn our attention to the end times, giving us images of breakdown and distress. In today’s Gospel passage, just as Jesus is coming out of the temple one of his disciples admires how solid the building is, how large it is, how grand. Surely it will last forever! But Jesus turns to him and says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). All will be thrown down. He goes on to predict natural disaster and social unrest, “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7a). “Nation will rise against nation,” he says, “and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (Mark 13:8).
Christianity is bracingly realistic about the human condition and the reality of natural disaster and human-caused disaster. Today Jesus predicts suffering and turmoil, and he says, “All will be thrown down.” Yet in the very same passage, in practically the very same breath, he also says: “Do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7). “Do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8).
Birth pangs? It seems that Jesus was so deeply rooted and grounded in the love of God, so attuned to God’s dream for the world, so open to God’s creative Spirit and power, that even in the midst of suffering and war, even in the midst of violence, terrorism, and death, he could see beyond everything that was passing away and stand fast in the unshakable, ever-new, ever-abundant love of God. Jesus trusted in God’s abiding presence and in God’s vision for the future. He trusted in God’s dream that human beings can find peace within themselves, with each other, and with the whole creation. Jesus knew that even in the midst of death, something new and holy is being born, and he offered himself to that birthing process as a midwife, a healer and peacemaker. He showed us the path of life and he invited us to walk it with him.
I wonder what it would it be like to share so consciously in Jesus’ mission of justice, compassion, and hope that we, too, thought of ourselves as midwives helping a new world to be born. I wonder what it would be like to throw our selves into birthing that new world with the same ardor that Hannah felt as she prayed to conceive and give birth to a child. As we heard in today’s first reading, Hannah prayed so ardently to be a generator of life that the priest who was watching her accused her of being drunk!
May we all get drunk like that! Heaven knows that our beautiful, suffering world needs people who are wholeheartedly committed to the struggle to safeguard life as it has evolved on this planet and to conceive and bring forth a compassionate, just, and life-sustaining society. We know what we’re up against. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut are linked with other deadly threats, such as climate change. Researchers tell us that ISIS, the Islamic State, arose partly because of climate change, which caused an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009. When crops failed, as many as 1.5 million people were forced to migrate from rural areas into cities. Social unrest escalated into civil war and eventually into the multifaceted conflict that now affects many millions of people.
Of course climate change is not the only cause of terrorism, but it’s what the Pentagon calls a “threat multiplier.” Earlier this week the World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – warned that unless we change course quickly and rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – within the next 15 years. We don’t have to be expert analysts in order to grasp how much suffering, upheaval and conflict that would engender worldwide.
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption because of an ever-expanding economic system that depends on fossil fuels. I see terrorism and poverty, rising seas and melting glaciers, and I see people so locked in fear, anger, or despair that they are unable to imagine, much less to create, a better future. It’s as if we’ve fallen under a spell and made what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has denounced as a “global suicide pact.”
But I also see this: person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to offer their energy and time to the shared struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Si, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding – miracles of miracles! – to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. Just this week I spent a day lobbying at the State House with a new interfaith coalition that is dedicated to climate justice right here in Massachusetts. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all our communities, including low-income. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. We may live in a society where we’re told that pleasure lies in being self-centered consumers who grab and hoard everything we can for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost, but we know the truth: our deepest identity and joy is found in being rooted and grounded in love and in serving the common good. With the psalmist, we turn to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and say: “You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11).
It’s a pleasure to be with you on this fine mid-summer morning. Thank you, Janet, for inviting me to preach. I am the Missioner for Creation Care in this diocese, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to protect the Earth. This is my first visit to Grace Church and I haven’t met most of you, but already I feel as if I’m among friends. From everything I’ve heard, you are modeling the kind of Christianity we need in the 21st century: a community of people who gather week by week to be nourished by each others’ presence and by the Word and sacraments of God, and who don’t require a big old building that leaves a big old carbon footprint.
I’m told that many of you are gardeners, and that you know how to cultivate the soil, tend flowers, and grow food. I honor you for that hands-on knowledge of the Earth, and I also honor your dedication to sharing what you grow with your neighbors and to feeding a hungry world. Our call as human beings to “till and keep” the Earth (Genesis 2:15) extends outward to political engagement, as well, so I also want to thank those of you who headed off to New York City last year to join the People’s Climate March. What an astonishing event that was – hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to proclaim the urgent need to protect and sustain life on Earth! Thank you, friends, for all the ways you bear witness to what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ: to reconcile humanity not only with God and each other, but also with the whole of Creation.
I know you’ve been reflecting for several weeks on food and faith, and I want to jump right in to our Gospel reading from John. Whenever I read this account of Jesus feeding the five thousand, I feel a wave of affection for the little boy who offered Jesus his five barley loaves and two fish.1 We don’t know very much about that boy – we get only a glimpse of him and we see him only in passing, but we do know that his gift to Jesus opened the door to a miracle, one that the early Church found so significant that, among all the stories of Jesus’ public ministry, only this one is recorded in all four Gospels. After that unknown little boy puts everything he has into the hands of Jesus, the hungry crowds are fed – in fact, they are filled with such abundance that the disciples can gather up the leftover food and pile it into twelve baskets.
Like many commentators, I’ve wondered about the identity of that nameless boy whose generosity made all the difference. I imagine him as being eight, nine, maybe ten years old. Maybe he heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, and started begging his mother to let him go see for himself the man that everyone was talking about. If I had been his mother, I would have been reluctant to say yes: for one thing, the boy might get lost in the crowds. But maybe he kept pestering her until finally she gave in and packed him a picnic lunch: some barley bread – in those days, the bread of the very poor – and a couple of pickled fish, no bigger than sardines.
What happened next is told in all four gospels. The hungry crowds begin to gather around Jesus – hundreds, even thousands of them – and they have nothing to eat. The sun is hot, their feet are sore, and their stomachs are empty.
One of the disciples, Philip, feels hopeless. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7). How easy it would have been for the boy to say to himself: “So many people need food, how can my bit of lunch make a difference? I don’t want to look like an idiot. And I don’t want to give away the little I have and go hungry, myself. Let’s just wait and see. Maybe someone else will figure out what to do.”
We will never know what went through the child’s mind, but obviously that wasn’t it, for something drew him forward. Maybe he tugged at Andrew’s sleeve and showed him the food that he’d brought with him. It seems that Andrew wasn’t particularly impressed. In fact, he sounds quite doubtful as he turns to Jesus to say, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9).
As I imagine it, Jesus listened quietly to Andrew and then turned to look down at the little boy, standing there in the heat with his outstretched offering of some chunks of bread and two tiny fish. Maybe Jesus looked at him and smiled. He took the child’s gift, blessed it, and gave it to all the hungry people to eat. And they ate, and were satisfied.
This is a story about hopelessness shifting to hope, about scarcity being transformed into abundance, about empty places being filled to overflowing. It’s a story about one small person initiating a miracle by offering what he has, even though it seems very small. It’s a story about the power of generosity – a story about how one small but selfless act can end up blessing everybody.
I relish this story because I cherish that little boy and also because it’s so easy to identify with the crowds of people around him that are hungry, tired, passive, and overwhelmed. It’s easy these days to be agitated by anxiety or paralyzed by despair, for the challenges that press upon us are daunting. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at a level that our species has never experienced before. This spring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that for the first time in human history the global level of carbon dioxide has topped 400 parts per million, reaching a level that hasn’t been seen in about 2 million years. For now the air is still breathable, and for now your life and mine will go on. But what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening so fast. Already we’ve shot well past 350 parts per million, the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere is accelerating at a record pace, one hundred times faster than natural rises in the past.
If we stick to business as usual and keep to our present course, then within two, three, four generations we could raise average global temperatures to a level that would make the world very difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. This summer the West is so dry, even a rainforest is on fire, and so many fires are burning in Alaska that the smoke has drifted through the Midwest and reached all the way down to Texas. The first half of 2015 was the hottest ever recorded, and this year is on track to beat last year as the hottest year on record. We’re on the edge, or even in the midst, of what some experts are calling the sixth major extinction event on this planet.
So when it comes to the climate crisis, it’s not just about polar bears anymore. It’s about saving a habitable world for our children and our children’s children. It’s about finding our moral compass and deciding what kind of world we want to inhabit. Like the little boy caught in the midst of a hungry and restless crowd, we rifle through our pockets, wondering what gift we have to offer and whether one person can possibly make a difference.
When I look around, I see a planet at risk and masses of people who are tormented by denial, fear, anger, or despair. But I also see this: person after person bravely standing up to offer his or her vision and skills, energy and time to the shared struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and to create a just and sustainable future. As a Christian, I believe that if we put what we have, whether it’s a little or a lot, into the hands of Jesus, miracles can happen and blessings can emerge that no one could possibly have predicted. As we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, if we stay “rooted and grounded in love,” we will discover a “power at work within us [that] is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:17, 20).
As I look around this summer I see people rising up for life and refusing to settle for a killing status quo. I see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical on the environment. I see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. I see our own Episcopal Church deciding – miracles of miracles! – to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. I see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people begin to realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected to the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice.
The worldview that allows the Earth to be exploited and trashed is the same worldview that allows the poor and vulnerable to be exploited and trashed – which means, as Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.” On September 24, one year after the People’s Climate March in New York City, people will be gathering in Washington, D.C., and in New York City to welcome the Pope as he addresses a joint session of Congress and then a meeting at the United Nations. This is a defining moment as we head toward the international climate talks that will be held in Paris this December.
But you don’t have to leave Massachusetts to join the climate justice movement. We are fortunate to have a strong grassroots climate group right here: 350Mass. for a Better Future. It has nodes across the state, including one here in Berkshire County. If you sign up to receive the weekly newsletter from 350Mass., as I hope you will after the service, you will find friends and allies in the struggle to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind. I can almost promise that in doing so you will receive a wave of hope that will nourish your soul.
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when human beings need to remember that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, that our life is a gift, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. Despite what our culture tells us, we are not called to be self-centered consumers who grab and hoard everything we can for ourselves, but rather people who find our deepest identity and deepest joy in serving the common good and in being rooted and grounded in love. I think that’s what the little boy in today’s Gospel story discovered when he gave his bread and fish to Jesus and realized, lo and behold, that somehow his gift was enabling the whole community to be fed.
I like to imagine how that day ended. I like to imagine that at the end of the day, the boy practically ran all the way home, burst through the door, and told his astonished mother, “Just guess what happened! Just guess what Jesus and I did together today!” Who knows what God in Christ will be able to do through you, today and in the days ahead, as you offer your gift to a yearning and hungry world?
1. I am indebted to a commentator who imagined this scene many years ago. I can’t remember where I read his account, but I want to give him credit and extend my thanks.